The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince (Nintendo Switch, E10+)
When I first heard that title, I thought this was going to be about a bratty princess causing hell for a handicapped prince. It's actually a fairly tale (even presented like a mother, older sister, or babysitter reading a storybook) about a monster who accidentally scratches a prince's eyes out, then pretends to be a princess to lead him to a cure. It's like a cross between western fairy tales with young royalty, an enchanted forest, and somebody trading their singing voice to a witch, and a Miyazaki film with creatures that wouldn't be too out of place in My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away and a final level reminiscent of the climax of Princess Mononoke. And keeping with the fairy tale presentation, the moral is that when you screw up you should fess up to it and apologize instead of trying to bury it in lies.
The game... well, it has potential. The environmental puzzles and holding the other character's hand to escort them through the level makes it feel like a 2D ICO if the game actually gave a reason for why the partner character was totally useless and didn't keep separating you from them, then making you abandon your task to run back and fight off some monsters the game spawned in (as far as I can tell, you can go as far from the prince as you like as long as you leave him somewhere without any hazards). And if you could turn into a giant fuckoff wolf. It's a fairly competent puzzle platformer that progressively adds new mechanics to keep things interesting, like asking the prince to pick up lanterns, or cat monsters that throw you over their shoulder.
The game is only a few hours long and I swear half of that is cutscene. You can still have a solid two-hour game and one like this even benefits from being short and sweet. But Liar Princess just doesn't make the most of its time, especially with the middle third being a chore to get through. The hardest part of the game is a horribly worded riddle involving a matrix of numbers and four stories from which you deduce what numbers to put into four crystals, which brought to mind a certain xkcd comic. Another level ends with a locked door, the combination to which requires you to go back through the stage and count up the number of red, blue, and yellow gems hanging from trees along the way. When you're designing tasks for the player to perform in your game, ask yourself, "Does this thing I'm asking the player to do in any way challenge or at least entertain them, or am I just wasting their time?"
And I kept having problems with those damn springy mushrooms. Sometimes you need to fall off a ledge and land on the mushrooms, except I'd fall a little too far forward and splatter on the ground next to them. Or I'd be trying to get up a ledge or over a pit with them and either not make the jump, or the Princess would slide off while the Prince went flying off in a weird angle, then break his shins on the landing. When I'm having trouble in a game, I want to know it's because I'm the thicky boo-boo head, not the physics engine.
If there's a theme for this month it's "neat stories tied to mediocre games."
The way Pinstripe tells its story is kind of neat, tying the story clues to items you need to solve the game's puzzles until finally dropping the "Oh damn" moment. The actual game is... I guess you could call it a "Metroidvania", but it's closer to the first two areas of one. It's very short, under two hours long with an achievement for beating it in under one, and half of that is backtracking and playing an awful balloon popping minigame for money to buy a cable car ticket. And when you're padding in a game that's barely an hour long, it might be worth stepping back and thinking about what you're doing for a few minutes. Incidentally, the other two times I found this merchant he was offering optional (and expensive) cosmetic items, so it didn't click with me that the ticket was mandatory and I was running around trying to figure out what to do next. I also hated the way the slingshot's targeting reticule wouldn't move with your character; you could at least let us hold a button to keep it stationary while moving the character.